Friday, May 29, 2020

Revolt of the White Caps

Popular movements, social revolts, heresies:  it is really hard to distinguish them for the Middle Ages.  It used to be that historians would see all heresies as social revolts in disguise, dismissing the religious aspect as just a facade.  That of course is not true, but it would be equally wrong to think of the heresies which became popular movements--as many did--as animated only by spiritual concerns.

This brings us to the White Caps, a religious/social movement of the 1180s.  It started in the town of Le Puy, in the Auvergne, a city built on a series of volcanic cones.  A man named Durand had a vision of the Virgin, who is the patron saint of Le Puy.


This is the town today.  On top of the highest peak you can glimpse a nneteenth-century statue of the Virgin.

Anyway, in Durand's vision in the 1180s he was told to form a group of faithful people who would all adopt a lead badge with the Virgin's image on it and a white cap or hood.  Both lords and peasants joined the group, with the goal of bringing "peace" to the region, in part by attacking bandits who were interfering with local trade.  Durand's group was known as the capucciati because of their caps.

Several chroniclers recorded the events at the time, all giving slightly different versions.  One said that the vision that began it was nothing but an "imposture," and that the greedy merchants of Le Puy just wanted an easier time transporting their goods.  Most however credited the group with real religious devotion.

The movement quickly spread north into Burgundy and became established in the region around Auxerre.  Here, the chroniclers all agreed, the movement changed, and the peasants and villagers turned on the lords who had once been part of their group, saying they were all bandits themselves.  At this point the bishop of Auxerre, recently consecrated, became involved.

Bishop Hugh rode out, heavily armed, with his men and rounded up all the White Caps folks he could find.  He took away their caps and their badges, saying they had forgotten that "the wages of sin are servitude" and they were all sinners and serfs, and that the Bible says that serfs should not attack their lords (the Bible actually says "the wages of sin are death" and talked about slaves, not medieval serfs, but this was close enough for the bishop).

He told the defeated White Caps that, to punish them, they would not be able to wear any hat at all for a year, either to shelter them from the bright sun during harvest or to keep the snow off in the winter.  The bishop's uncle, the archbishop of Sens, however saw the men roasting in the harvest fields, had pity, and told Bishop Hugh to let them wear regular hats again.

This short-lived revolt has several interesting features.  One is that it demonstrates peasant agency, the ability of people who are usually thought of as marginal and oppressed to fight back against oppression, as I have discussed earlier.  It also shows that what might be considered a social revolt, an effort by peasants to claim that all lords were, in some form, bandits, would take on a distinctly religious tone in the Middle Ages.  The capucciati were not an actual heresy, because they were not espousing erroneous doctrine, but a religious impulse clearly started their movement.  It is also important to note that bishops were not always in agreement with each other, and that many bishops, like Bishop Hugh of Auxerre, felt that they were a better judge of real religion than other people, and were prepared for armed conflict to prove it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval religion and society, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback!

Monday, May 18, 2020

How I Survived Junior High

I've got a new book!  It's entitled "How I Survived Junior High" and is available on all the major ebook sites (Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Nook), and is also available as a paperback.

Those who know me as a fantasy writer will note that this one is short on wizards and dragons or even a medieval (or semi-medieval) setting.  It is however "historical fiction," set back some 60 years ago in the US.  Like all of my novels, I think of it as "searing," while readers may say, "Gave me a few chuckles."  I deny that it is autobiographical.

Here's the description:

Back before cell phones, before computers or streaming video, even before they called it "middle school," life was easier, right? Wrong!
It's the early 1960s. Shelley, shy and twelve years old, leaves a small elementary school for a big junior high. Her experiences are both painful and very funny. Will she be able to make friends? Will the kids in the popular clique even notice her? Which is more obnoxious, her little brother or the school principal? Why is her body changing like this, and will she ever get a date?

And here's the opening:


I didn't get lost once on the first day of Junior High, even though I had 
never been in the building before. I cheated, though. My mother had
taught there before I was born and told me, “Go in the front door, turn right, and your homeroom is at the end of the hall on the left.” And for the rest of the day I just followed the other people in my classes from one room to another. Since they had not gone to a three- room grade school as I had, they could be expected to be able to find their way around a large building. 

Homeroom 110 was at the end of the hall, on the left, just as my mother had said. Our bus had been early, and there were only two other people there besides the teacher.
“Hello,” she said as I came in. “Is this your home- room? I’m Mrs. Wilkes.” 

“I’m Shelley Langdon,” I answered and smiled. Smile at your teachers, my father had said as I left that morning. Mrs.Wilkes was glancing at a list on her desk. “Shelley is short for Michelle.” 

Mrs. Wilkes returned my smile. She had a plump face and smiled just like my favorite aunt.
“Choose any seat you like, Michelle. Make yourself comfortable until everyone is here.” 

I took a seat next to the window. Be sure to get a desk with enough light, my father had said. And since our bus had been so early, I had plenty of time to make myself comfortable.
“I wonder what she teaches,” I thought, looking at Mrs. Wilkes. “I wonder if I’ll have her. I wonder if any of the other kids in this homeroom will be in my classes.” 

My older brother Jack had gone to junior high on the other side of town before they’d changed the school districts. “Homerooms are alphabetical,” he said, “but your classes depend on how smart you are.” Jack thought he knew everything about junior high, just because he was three years older than I and in high school now. He had ignored me when I said that maybe Sidney Sharpe Junior High was different from his. 

Other students were coming in now. “Hey there, Tom!” “Barbie, how you been?” “Did you guys have a good summer?” “Hey, Jamie, we’re in the same room again!” “I had a great summer!” 

No one said, “Hi, Shelley!” There was no one in the room from my grade school. I sat up straighter, flipped my long curly hair back over my shoulders, and hid my chewed fingernails under the desk. 

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

If you came to my blog looking for medieval history rather than fiction, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Prester John

There was a strong belief in the Middle Ages of a mysterious Prester John (the prester meaning priest), a king somewhere in Africa who was a Christian.  During most of Europe's Middle Ages sub-Saharan Africa was primarily what they considered pagan (North Africa of course was Muslim from the seventh century on), so the idea of a Christian enclave was very exciting.

This idea may have had its origin in third-hand stories about Ethiopia.  That region of east Africa included a large Christian population (the kingdom of Ethiopia had made Christianity the official religion in the fourth century) and a large Jewish population.  The latter were descended, according to legend, from the Queen of Sheba, who had married King Solomon.  The Prester John of the stories was usually black (like the Ethiopians) and also Christian.

But there was more to the story of Prester John than confused travelers' tales about Ethiopia (or India or Christian Armenia).  The story gained wide currency from the (fictive) accounts in a volume called Mandeville's Travels.  Mandeville supposedly discovered two great kingdoms, side by side in Africa (or India, or possibly the Middle East, at any rate very far away), one a scary Muslim kingdom of Assassins, the other a beautiful and happy Christian kingdom ruled over by Prester John.  In some versions, John was descended from the Three Magi.  Thus tales of Prester John, who combined the functions of king and priest, could serve as a foil for all that was supposedly bad about Islam.

The kingdom of Prester John was of course opulent, full of rich jewels, as any imagined wonderful country should be.  But John and his nobles lived abstemiously, eating simple fare, having sex only a few times a year and then only for the purpose of procreation.  Prester John got to have a harem in these stories, or at least be polygamous like an Old Testament figure, but he rarely visited his wives.  Thus the stories about him could also serve as morality stories about what Europe's own monarchs were supposed to be like, as seen in the late medieval image below.  The supposed Assassin kingdom next door to Prester John's, in contrast, was full of gluttony and lechery.

It should not be a surprise that stories of Prester John first became popular in the middle of the twelfth century, during the height of the crusading movement.  A letter that he supposedly wrote, saying that he wanted to help defend Jerusalem from the Muslims and personally visit the Holy Sepulchre, gained wide circulation in the 1140s.  In the 1170s the pope wrote a letter to Prester John, suggesting they should work together, though he doesn't seem to have gotten an answer.

In the early thirteenth century, after the Muslims had taken back Jerusalem, a crusading army made some spectacularly disastrous strategic decisions based on the conviction that Prester John himself (or a son or grandson or nephew for sure) was about to show up with his armies to help them.  (As you probably guessed, he didn't.)

The story of Prester John continued to be influential during the late Middle Ages, getting extra impetus when diplomatic relations were established (sort of) with Ethiopia in the fourteenth century.  By the seventeenth century, however, Europeans had to admit that perhaps Prester John had not been real after all, and that Ethiopia was not the marvelous jeweled kingdom they'd heard about.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on crusades and legends and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available as a paperback.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Gypsies first appeared in western Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Although in the US they are considered a fairly intriguing group, in Europe they have been distrusted and considered dangerous ever since they first appeared.  The word "gypsy" in English is connected "to gyp," to cheat.  British gypsies therefore prefer being called Travelers, because moving from place to place has always been one of their defining characteristics.  The best term for them (their own term) is Roma or Romani.

The first records of them are from India in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when there are references to groups who were especially good at music.   In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they began migrating west, from India to Persia to Armenia to Byzantium, the Greek-speaking heir to the Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople.  The Greeks called them Atzinganoi, a word that may have meant "heretics" originally, and that has given rise to most of Europe's names for them (Zigeuner in German, Tsiganes in French, Zingari in Italian).

The Romani stayed in Byzantine territory for several centuries, picking up many Greek words to add to a language that had originated in the Indian subcontinent, and gaining the very designation of Romani, people of the "Roman Empire," especially that part now known as Romania.  It was during this period that they began to be considered a particular race, a group within Byzantium with distinctive culture, language, religion, and habits:  for example, they were described as thieves and also as endowed with strange occult powers, especially fortune-telling.

(Cue Cher's song, "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.")

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the attacks of the Turks on Byzantium (and its eventual fall), many of the Romani moved west again.  When they reached England, they were called "Egyptians," probably from a combination of their darker complexion (compared to the Celts and Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles) and of their reputation for sorcery, for Muslim Egypt was also considered a center of dark arts.  This is the root of the word English word "gypsy."

The Romani were distrusted, as strange "foreign" people.  Some settled down in their own communities in western Europe, but others found it hard to be accepted and found it easiest to keep moving, doing itinerant work (such as being tinkers) or doing animal trading.  Few became farmers.  In many ways, they were treated similarly to the way the Jews were treated, as a minority with useful skills on which the dominant culture wanted to keep a watchful eye, and against which there were periodic attacks.

Those Romani who stayed in Romania/Moldavia/Transylvania had it even more difficult.  The area was considered the breadbasket of the Turkish empire that had replaced the Byzantine empire, and many Romani became agricultural slaves, a condition that persisted until the nineteenth century.

The Romani are still distrusted and treated with prejudice in modern Europe.  France forbids parking a camper (the modern replacement for the old gypsy caravan) in a house's driveway, meaning that those who want to spend part of the year following the old itinerant ways have to garage one someplace.  (This rule was not written with French vacationers in mind.)

I have included gypsies in some of my fantasies.  I call them Romney, with a different spelling to indicate that I am not striving for historical exactness in my fiction.  The Romney play an important role in the novella A Long Way Til November, which (unlike some of my other novellas) still has my own original cover, a photo of the French hilltop town of Turenne.

A Long Way 'Til November (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 9) by [C. Dale Brittain] 

 © C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval society, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!